Nehemiah 8:1
And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.
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(1) As one man.—The unanimity rather than the number is emphatic here.

And they spake unto Ezra.—Who appears in this book for the first time, having probably been at the court for twelve years.



Nehemiah 8:1 - Nehemiah 8:12

The wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, which was the sixth month. The events recorded in this passage took place on the first day of the seventh month. The year is not given, but the natural inference is that it was the same as that of the finishing of the wall; namely, the twentieth of Artaxerxes. If so, the completion of the fortifications to which Nehemiah had set himself, was immediately followed by this reading of the law, in which Ezra takes the lead. The two men stand in a similar relative position to that of Zerubbabel and Joshua, the one representing the civil and the other the religious authority.

According to Ezra 7:9, Ezra had gone to Jerusalem about thirteen years before Nehemiah, and had had a weary time of fighting against the corruptions which had crept in among the returned captives. The arrival of Nehemiah would be hailed as bringing fresh, young enthusiasm, none the less welcome and powerful because it had the king’s authority entrusted to it. Evidently the two men thoroughly understood one another, and pulled together heartily. We heard nothing about Ezra while the wall was being built. But now he is the principal figure, and Nehemiah is barely mentioned. The reasons for Ezra’s taking the prominent part in the reading of the law are given in the two titles by which he is designated in two successive verses {Nehemiah 8:1 - Nehemiah 8:2}. He was ‘the scribe’ and also ‘the priest,’ and in both capacities was the natural person for such a work.

The seventh month was the festival month of the year, its first day being that of the Feast of trumpets, and the great Feast of tabernacles as well as the solemn day of atonement occurring in it. Possibly, the prospect of the coming of the times for these celebrations may have led to the people’s wish to hear the law, that they might duly observe the appointed ceremonial. At all events, the first thing to note is that it was in consequence of the people’s wish that the law was read in their hearing. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah originated the gathering together. They obeyed a popular impulse which they had not created. We must not, indeed, give the multitude credit for much more than the wish to have their ceremonial right. But there was at least that wish, and possibly something deeper and more spiritual. The walls were completed; but the true defence of Israel was in God, and the condition of His defending was Israel’s obedience to His law. The people were, in some measure, beginning to realise that condition with new clearness, in consequence of the new fervour which Nehemiah had brought.

It is singular that, during his thirteen years of residence, Ezra is not recorded to have promulgated the law, though it lay at the basis of the drastic reforms which he was able to carry through. Probably he had not been silent, but the solemn public recitation of the law was felt to be appropriate on occasion of completing the wall. Whether the people had heard it before, or, as seems implied, it was strange to them, their desire to hear it may stand as a pattern for us of that earnest wish to know God’s will which is never cherished in vain. He who does not intend to obey does not wish to know the law. If we have no longing to know what the will of the Lord is, we may be very sure that we prefer our own to His. If we desire to know it, we shall desire to understand the Book which contains so much of it. Any true religion in the heart will make us eager to perceive, and willing to be guided by, the will of God, revealed mainly in Scripture, in the Person, works, and words of Jesus, and also in waiting hearts by the Spirit, and in those things which the world calls ‘circumstances’ and faith names ‘providences.’

II. Nehemiah 8:2 - Nehemiah 8:8 appear to tell the same incidents twice over-first, more generally in Nehemiah 8:2 andNehemiah 8:8, and then more minutely. Such expanded repetition is characteristic of the Old Testament historical style. It is somewhat difficult to make sure of the real circumstances. Clearly enough there was a solemn assembly of men, women, and children in a great open space outside one of the gates, and there, from dawn till noon, the law was read and explained. But whether Ezra read it all, while the Levites named in Nehemiah 8:7 explained or paraphrased or translated it, or whether they all read in turns, or whether there were a number of groups, each of which had a teacher who both read and expounded, is hard to determine. At all events, Ezra was the principal figure, and began the reading.

It was a picturesque scene. The sun, rising over the slopes of Olivet, would fall on the gathered crowd, if the water-gate was, as is probable, on the east or south-east side of the city. Beneath the fresh fortifications probably, which would act as a sounding-board for the reader, was set up a scaffold high above the crowd, large enough to hold Ezra and thirteen supporters-principal men, no doubt-seven on one side of him and six on the other. Probably a name has dropped out, and the numbers were equal. There, in the morning light, with the new walls for a background, stood Ezra on his rostrum, and amid reverent silence, lifted high the sacred roll. A common impulse swayed the crowd, and brought them all to their feet-token at once of respect and obedient attention. Probably many of them had never seen a sacred roll. To them all it was comparatively unfamiliar. No wonder that, as Ezra’s voice rose in prayer, the whole assembly fell on their faces in adoration, and every lip responded ‘Amen! amen!’

Much superstition may have mingled with the reverence. No doubt, there was then what we are often solemnly warned against now, bibliolatry. But in this time of critical investigation it is not the divine element in Scripture which is likely to be exaggerated; and few are likely to go wrong in the direction of paying too much reverence to the Book in which, as is still believed, God has revealed His will and Himself. While welcoming all investigations which throw light on its origin or its meaning, and perfectly recognising the human element in it, we should learn the lesson taught by that waiting crowd prone on their faces, and blessing God for His word. Such attitude must ever precede reading it, if we are to read aright.

Hour after hour the recitation went on. We must let the question of the precise form of the events remain undetermined. It is somewhat singular that thirteen names are enumerated as of the men who stood by Ezra, and thirteen as those of the readers or expounders. It may be the case that the former number is complete, though uneven, and that there was some reason unknown for dividing the audience into just so many sections. The second set of thirteen was not composed of the same men as the first. They seem to have been Levites, whose office of assisting at the menial parts of the sacrifices was now elevated into that of setting forth the law. Probably the portions read were such as bore especially on ritual, though the tears of the listeners are sufficient proof that they had heard some things that went deeper than that.

The word rendered ‘distinctly’ in the Revised Version {margin, with an interpretation} is ambiguous, and may either mean that the Levites explained or that they translated the words. The former is the more probable, as there is no reason to suppose that the audience, most of whom had been born in the land, were ignorant of Hebrew. But if the ritual had been irregularly observed, and the circle of ideas in the law become unfamiliar, many explanations would be necessary. It strikes one as touching and strange that such an assembly should be needed after so many centuries of national existence. It sums up in one vivid picture the sin and suffering of the nation. To observe that law had been the condition of their prosperity. To bind it on their hearts should have been their delight and would have been their life; and here, after all these generations, the best of the nation are assembled, so ignorant of it that they cannot even understand it when they hear it. Absorption with worldly things has an awful power of dulling spiritual apprehension. Neglect of God’s law weakens the power of understanding it.

This scene was in the truest sense a ‘revival.’ We may learn the true way of bringing men back to God; namely, the faithful exposition and enforcement of God’s will and word. We may learn, too, what should be the aim of public teachers of religion; namely, first and foremost, the clear setting forth of God’s truth. Their first business is to ‘give the sense, so that they understand the reading’; and that, not for merely intellectual purposes, but that, like the crowd outside the water-gate on that hot noonday, men may be moved to penitence, and then lifted to the joy of the Lord.

The first day of the seventh month was the Feast of trumpets; and when the reading was over, and its effects of tears and sorrow for disobedience were seen, the preachers changed their tone, to bring consolation and exhort to gladness. Nehemiah had taken no part in reading the law, as Ezra the priest and his Levites were more appropriately set to that. But he joins them in exhorting the people to dry their tears, and go joyfully to the feast. These exhortations contain many thoughts universally applicable. They teach that even those who are most conscious of sin and breaches of God’s law should weep indeed, but should swiftly pass from tears to joy. They do not teach how that passage is to be effected; and in so far they are imperfect, and need to be supplemented by the New Testament teaching of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But in their clear discernment that sorrow is not meant to be a permanent characteristic of religion, and that gladness is a more acceptable offering than tears, they teach a valuable lesson, needed always by men who fancy that they must atone for their sins by their own sadness, and that religion is gloomy, harsh, and crabbed.

Further, these exhortations to festal gladness breathe the characteristic Old Testament tone of wholesome enjoyment of material good as a part of religion. The way of looking at eating and drinking and the like, as capable of being made acts of worship, has been too often forgotten by two kinds of men-saints who have sought sanctity in asceticism; and sensualists who have taken deep draughts of such pleasures without calling on the name of the Lord, and so have failed to find His gifts a cup of salvation. It is possible to ‘eat and drink and see God’ as the elders of Israel did on Sinai.

Further, the plain duty of remembering the needy while we enjoy God’s gifts is beautifully enjoined here. The principle underlying the commandment to ‘send portions to them for whom nothing is provided’-that is, for whom no feast has been dressed-is that all gifts are held in trust, that nothing is bestowed on us for our own good only, but that we are in all things stewards. The law extends to the smallest and to the greatest possessions. We have no right to feast on anything unless we share it, whether it be festal dainties or the bread that came down from heaven. To divide our portion with others is the way to make our portion greater as well as sweeter.

Further, ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ By strength here seems to be meant a stronghold. If we fix our desires on God, and have trained our hearts to find sweeter delights in communion with Him than in any earthly good, our religion will have lifted us above mists and clouds into clear air above, where sorrows and changes will have little power to affect us. If we are to rejoice in the Lord, it will be possible for us to ‘rejoice always,’ and that joy will be as a refuge from all the ills that flesh is heir to. Dwelling in God, we shall dwell safely, and be far from the fear of evil.

Nehemiah 8:1. Into the street that was before the water-gate — Probably, in that space which was afterward called the court of the Gentiles. They spake unto Ezra the scribe — This Ezra, without all doubt, is the same person who came from Babylon in the seventh year of Artaxerxes. It is thought he had been at Babylon since his first coming into Judah, and was now returned; beholding, doubtless, with great joy, the wall of Jerusalem built, as before he had seen the temple finished. To bring the book of the law of Moses — They called to mind that place, (Deuteronomy 31:10-11,) where God requires the law to be read publicly every seventh year, in the feast of tabernacles, which was appointed to be kept about the middle of this month. This office, no doubt, Ezra was ready to perform; but such was the forward zeal of the people at this time, that they prevented him by their pious entreaties, requesting that he would read the law before that feast began.

8:1-8 Sacrifices were to be offered only at the door of the temple; but praying and preaching were, and are, services of religion, as acceptably performed in one place as in another. Masters of families should bring their families with them to the public worship of God. Women and children have souls to save, and are therefore to acquaint themselves with the word of God, and to attend on the means of grace. Little ones, as they come to reason, must be trained up in religion. Ministers when they go to the pulpit, should take their Bibles with them; Ezra did so. Thence they must fetch their knowledge; according to that rule they must speak, and must show that they do so. Reading the Scriptures in religious assemblies is an ordinance of God, whereby he is honoured, and his church edified. Those who hear the word, should understand it, else it is to them but an empty sound of words. It is therefore required of teachers that they explain the word, and give the sense of it. Reading is good, and preaching is good, but expounding makes reading the better understood, and preaching the more convincing. It has pleased God in almost every age of the church to raise up, not only those who have preached the gospel, but also those who have given their views of Divine truth in writing; and though many who have attempted to explain Scripture, have darkened counsel by words without knowledge, yet the labours of others are of excellent use. All that we hear must, however, be brought to the test of Scripture. They heard readily, and minded every word. The word of God demands attention. If through carelessness we let much slip in hearing, there is danger that through forgetfulness we shall let all slip after hearing.The street - Rather, "the square" or "court." So in Nehemiah 8:16 (compare Ezra 10:9). The court seems to have been one between the eastern gate of the temple and the watergate in the city-wall. It would thus lie within the modern Haram area.

Ezra the scribe - This is the first mention of Ezra in the present book, and the first proof we have had that he was contemporary with Nehemiah. Probably he returned to the court of Artaxerxes soon after effecting the reforms which he relates in Ezra 10, and did not revisit Jerusalem until about the time when the walls were completed, or after an absence of more than ten years. It was natural for the people to request him to resume the work of exposition of the Law to which he had accustomed them on his former visit Ezra 7:10, Ezra 7:25.


Ne 8:1-8. Religious Manner of Reading and Hearing the Law.

1. all the people gathered themselves together as one man—The occasion was the celebration of the feast of the seventh month (Ne 7:73). The beginning of every month was ushered in as a sacred festival; but this, the commencement of the seventh month, was kept with distinguished honor as "the feast of trumpets," which extended over two days. It was the first day of the seventh ecclesiastical year, and the new year's day of the Jewish civil year, on which account it was held as "a great day." The place where the general concourse of people was held was "at the water gate," on the south rampart. Through that gate the Nethinims or Gibeonites brought water into the temple, and there was a spacious area in front of it.

they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses—He had come to Jerusalem twelve or thirteen years previous to Nehemiah. He either remained there or had returned to Babylon in obedience to the royal order, and for the discharge of important duties. He had returned along with Nehemiah, but in a subordinate capacity. From the time of Nehemiah's appointment to the dignity of tirshatha, Ezra had retired into private life. Although cordially and zealously co-operating with the former patriot in his important measures of reform, the pious priest had devoted his time and attention principally toward producing a complete edition of the canonical Scriptures. The public reading of the Scriptures was required by the law to be made every seventh year; but during the long period of the captivity this excellent practice, with many others, had fallen into neglect, till revived, on this occasion. That there was a strong and general desire among the returned exiles in Jerusalem to hear the word of God read to them indicates a greatly improved tone of religious feeling.Ezra bringeth and expoundeth the law of Moses, and blesseth God with the people, Nehemiah 8:1-8. Nehemiah and Ezra comfort the people, Nehemiah 8:9-12. The people’s forwardness to hear and to be instructed in the law, Nehemiah 8:13-15. They make themselves booths, Nehemiah 8:16,17; and keep the feast seven days, Nehemiah 8:18.

The street that was before the water-gate; of which See Poole "Nehemiah 3:26".

And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the watergate,.... A large and commodious street for such a company of people, which led to the water gate, of which see Nehemiah 3:26 hither the people gathered with great unanimity, zeal, and affection:

and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe; the same who is called Ezra the priest, and scribe of the law of God, and said to be a ready one, Ezra 7:6, who came to Jerusalem thirteen years before this time; but very probably returned to Babylon again, and was lately come from thence:

to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel; to observe what was commanded in it, and which he had ordered to be read, particularly every seventh year, at the feast of tabernacles, Deuteronomy 31:10 which was now drawing near, though this was not the precise time of reading it; hence some have thought this year was the sabbatical year; see Nehemiah 5:11.

And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the {a} scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.

(a) Read Ezr 7:6.

1. into the street] R.V. into the broad place. The open space in front of ‘the water-gate’ is probably the same as that mentioned in Ezra 10:9, ‘and all the people sat in the broad place before the house of God.’ Cf. Nehemiah 3:26, ‘the Nethinim dwelt in Ophel, unto the place over against the water-gate toward the east.’ It is generally supposed that this broad place lay between the S.E. precincts of the Temple and the Eastern wall.

the water gate] Cf. Nehemiah 3:26, Nehemiah 12:37.

they spake unto Ezra the scribe] ‘They spake;’ the impersonal plural implies that the whole community expressed the wish through their representative leaders.

Ezra the scribe] Ezra’s name occurs here for the first time in our book of Nehemiah. It naturally calls for remark (1) that Ezra’s name was not mentioned by Nehemiah among his supporters in the work of rebuilding the walls, (2) that Nehemiah’s description of the condition of the people, the oppression of the poor by the rich (ch. 4) and the intermarriage with the heathen (Nehemiah 6:18; Nehemiah 10:30; Nehemiah 13:23-28) seems to conflict with the idea of the authority which Ezra obtained over the people, Ezra 9, Ezra 10. Two explanations have been put forward,

(a) It is suggested that Ezra, after accomplishing the reforms described in Ezra 9, Ezra 10, returned to Babylon; that after an absence of 12 years, he revisited Jerusalem in time to witness the completion of the city walls by Nehemiah, and was requested by the people to renew his former practice of expounding the Law in public.

(b) It is suggested that Ezra had never after his arrival in Jerusalem left the city for any prolonged period; but that after his protest against mixed marriages, he had failed to carry his religious reformation any further. The enemies of the Jews and their unpatriotic allies in Jerusalem had frustrated his attempts. The arrival of Nehemiah changed the aspect of affairs. The religious policy of Ezra was once more in the ascendant. The popular enthusiasm excited by the completion of the walls gave the wished for opportunity of publishing the Law to the people. The omission of Ezra’s name in Nehemiah 1-7 is still a difficulty. But Nehemiah’s memoirs, so far as they are excerpted, record only the events and people concerned with the rebuilding of the walls. If Ezra had been present while the work was in progress, we might naturally have expected to find his name among the repairers of the breaches in chap. 3. Perhaps Ezra, being devoted to the study and teaching of the Law, was not reckoned among those most influential for practical purposes. Being also of the high-priest’s kindred, he was very probably included among the repairers of the breach identified with the name of Eliashib (Nehemiah 3:1).

to bring the book of the law, &c.] There is nothing in these words to lead us to suppose that Ezra had before been in the habit of reading the Law to the people. The verse does not record an annual custom but an exceptional step, cf. Nehemiah 8:18. The people saw that their national integrity was safeguarded by city walls; their jealousy for their distinctiveness as ‘a peculiar people’ was rekindled. Their request to Ezra marked their adoption of his policy, that of keeping the people of Israel separate from the nations upon the basis of their religious life. His policy was that the religious life of the people should be regulated by the Law as contained in certain recognised writings, and should not be dependent upon the tradition of the Priests. The demand for the production of ‘the book of the law’ is of twofold interest; (1) it testifies to a general knowledge of the existence of a book the contents of which, so far as they are known, agreed substantially with our Pentateuch; (2) the voice of popular acknowledgment set the seal of ‘Canonicity’ upon the first portion of the Jewish Scriptures[2].

[2] For a more detailed treatment of this subject I may perhaps be permitted to refer the reader to chap. 4. in my ‘Canon of the Old Testament’ (Macmillan, 1892).

Verse 1. - The chapter should commence, as in the Septuagint, with the last two clauses of ch. 7, and should run thus: - "And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in their cities, all the people gathered themselves together, as one man, into the court that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe," etc. The "court" (rehob) spoken of appears to have been situated between the eastern gate of the temple and the city wall, at the point where it was pierced by the "water gate." They spake unto Ezra. It is remarkable that the people ask for instruction. Though they do not keep the law, they have a yearning after it. They are not contented with their existing condition, but desire better things, and they have an instinctive feeling that to hear God's word will help them. Nehemiah 8:1Nehemiah 8:1-2. The public reading of the law. - Nehemiah 8:1-3. The introduction to this narrative (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:1a) is identical with Ezra 3:1. The same matter, the assembling of the people on the approach of the seventh month, is described in the same words. But the object of this assembling of the people was a different one from that mentioned in Ezra 3:1-13. Then they met to restore the altar of burnt-offering and the sacrificial worship; now, on the contrary, for the due solemnization of the seventh month, the festal month of the year. For this purpose the people came from the cities and villages of Judah to Jerusalem, and assembled "in the open space before the water-gate," i.e., to the south-east of the temple space. On the situation of the water-gate, see rem. on Nehemiah 3:26; Nehemiah 12:37., and Ezra 10:9. "And they spake unto Ezra the scribe" (see rem. on Ezra 7:11). The subject of ויּאמרוּ is the assembled people. These requested, through their rulers, that Ezra should fetch the book of the law of Moses, and publicly read it. This reading, then, was desired by the assembly. The motive for this request is undoubtedly to be found in the desire of the congregation to keep the new moon of the seventh month, as a feast of thanksgiving for the gracious assistance they had received from the Lord during the building of the wall, and through which it had been speedily and successfully completed, in spite of the attempts of their enemies to obstruct the work. This feeling of thankfulness impelled them to the hearing of the word of God for the purpose of making His law their rule of life. The assembly consisted of men and women indiscriminately (אשּׁה ועד אישׁ, like Joshua 6:21; Joshua 8:25; 1 Samuel 22:19; 1 Chronicles 16:3), and לשׁמע מבין כּל, every one that understood in hearing, which would certainly include the elder children. The first day of the seventh month was distinguished above the other new moons of the year as the feast of trumpets, and celebrated as a high festival by a solemn assembly and a cessation from labour; comp. Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6.
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